My current project is a book on the notion of the ‘quality’ film in contemporary Hollywood, for which I now have a contract, titled Quality Hollywood: Markers of Distinction in Contemporary Studio Production. I’ve posted some thoughts on issues relating to this already, but will be adding some various musings on the topic now and in the future. This isn’t strictly about indie film, but the quality issue is one that’s clearly relevant to that territory as well. Some definitions of ‘indie’ tend also to use the term ‘quality’, for one thing. And what I’ll be doing in this project is also broadly connected with some of my previous work on indie and Indiewood, which has increasingly focused on understanding films from these sectors to be offering various kinds and degrees of marking of distinctions textually and in offering particular kinds of appeals to viewers.
What is meant by ‘quality’ here is a certain kind of positioning within prevailing cultural hierarchies, often the result of the creation of associations with work that is conventionally located ‘higher’ in such schemas. I’m using the term that way, rather than to suggest an actual value-judgement about ‘how good’ certain kinds of films or other material might be judged to be – although there’s often much slippage here and that’s an issue I’ll be seeking to explore further in the book, along with the deeper cultural and historical roots of these processes as they function today (it’s also a question raised in my previous post about Game of Thrones.
Here, I plan to offer occasional thoughts related to this project, including the identification of some of the things that tend to be taken as markers of quality of this kind, often in areas that aren’t the immediate focus of the book, including contemporary TV series that seek to claim quality status to one degree or another.
One issue that seems of significance here is the pacing of certain plot/character developments. A marker of quality is to give certain lines plenty of time to develop. The Sopranos offers plenty of examples of this, where a development involving a particular character might be built over many episodes and thus have all the more impact when it comes to fruition some time later. A counter-example would be The OC, which is pitched as a more ‘popular’ series, although also making some quality claims in certain aspects of its writing, I think. I recall episodes of The OC in which a previously unknown relative of a central character would turn up, threatening all kinds of ramifications to the plot, only to disappear again about two episodes later. (SPOILER ALERT here re. the next paragraph for anyone watching or planning to watch series 2 of The Walking Dead or not up to date on the latest Being Human.)
A similar distinction struck me between two episodes of series that I’m watching at the moment (Sopranos and The OC having been some time ago). In series 2 of The Walking Dead, a child goes missing in the first episode, cueing plenty of angst that lasts until episode 6, when she suddenly turns up undead, an effect that’s quite shocking in its immediate context but also because of the slow-burn with which this strand was treated. In the current series of Being Human, by way of contrast, two interesting new characters were introduced in each of the last two I watched but both were disposed of within the same episode. That seems to be a marker of relatively lower quality, in these hierarchical terms, and it’s interesting to me to try to draw out the basis of such a judgement.
To give a particular plot strand or character situation a longer arc is, it seems, to position a text as more ‘restrained’, ‘disciplined’ and ‘subtle’ – the kinds of terms that tend to be implied, among others, in judgements of ‘higher’ quality. To move through plot elements very quickly, or to bring in what appear to be significant new characters and to finish with them rapidly, is to lack such markers of quality; to risk being labelled as ‘impatient’, ‘lazy’, ‘disposable’, or the like. (See here, also, my earlier post on the dubious notion of ‘reduced attention span’, as criticised in a similar context by Michael Newman). These terms clearly need a great deal of unpacking and situating in particular contexts, especially via the use of Pierre Bourdieu’s notion of cultural capital. To appreciate the subtle and restrained, it seems – to be more ‘discriminating’, as it’s implied – greater resources of cultural capital are generally required (inherited and learned resources that enable and encourage us to make such distinctions and to feel in some way superior through being able to do so).